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Entries in Gomorrah (2)

Thursday
Nov112010

OMNIBUS 08: THE 2008 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL

More balls than brains. © IFC FIlms

Last year’s Festival marked an inspirational return to its original purpose: showcasing the best films from around the world with no pandering and no worrying about what NY audiences might be ready for. The middle of the roading and compromised choices of previous years were gone. Last year was a brave, forward-thinking and comprehensive Festival. And this year follows…after nobody showed up last year for John Ford’s Iron Horse, the Festival contented itself with a revival only of Lola Montes, and its screenings were held in the best theater on earth, the Ziegfeld. The Festival ran into trouble when it reached out too eagerly to Hollywood, but otherwise presented a true omnibus, a comprehensive report from the world—the entire world—of movies.

Chouga Dir: Darezhan Omirbayev

A Kazahkstanian adaptation of Anna Karenina filmed at a cough-syrup pace and performed by zombies. The dialogue, delivered in muted tones, matches the actors’ blank faces and compressed movements. Is this is a stylistic choice made to metaphorasize the crushing existential weight of life in the new Kazakhstan or does the director simply prefer a super mega hella deadpan? Either way, time slows to a crawl and one’s attention turns to the other-worldly mise-en-scene.Omirbayev’s lingering, static camera, and embalmed narrative provide a detailed tour of the ghastly interior decorating choices of the Kazakh bourgeoisie. Again, is the director filling space or offering social commentary? I don’t know, but I do know this: the main problem with remaking Anna Karenina is the same problem with re-making the story of Jesus: we all know exactly how it turns out.

Summer Hours Dir: Olivier Assayas

Another tale of manners among the haute bourgeoisie, this time focusing on adult siblings dealing with the loss of their mother and her exquisite house, a place of memories for them all. This is a long way from Assayas’s Boarding Gate and its super-hot, super-tough jet-setting corporate babes writhing in liquid leather while being electrocuted on internet torture sites. Since I walked out of Gate at the 3/4 mark, I cannot tell you the point of that exercise. Summer Hours fomented a similar response. The familial moments are well-played (if hardly credible), the cinematography warm as home-baked croissants, and the house a marvel ofDwell-Magazine perfection. But why, at this point in history, does Assayas find the tiny emotional torments of the extremely well-off so fascinating? There’s no drama save gauging how constantly irritated Juliet Binoche appears, and how cumulatively irritating her performance becomes. When Michael Haneke makes mincemeat of tales like these with Caché, and builds his story on the lies that underlie Assayas’s every premise, you have to take Summer Hours as a case of willful blindness, straight-up nostalgia or misguided Truffaut imitation. Though, as in all of his films, Assayas does create a sense of long-time, fraught relationships among his characters.

 Night and Day Dir: Hong Sang-soo

Hong’s baffled, paralytic, passive-aggressive male hero sits in his Parisian hostel (run and peopled by other Koreans) killing time, smoking, talking to his wife on the phone, ignoring the fact that he’s in Paris and waiting for something to happen. He has no money, goals or ambition. The guy’s a dufus and fantastically repressed. His response to anger or affection is an affable smile. And yet, he falls in love and others fall for him and he somehow remains compelling. Hong’s the Korean Eric Rohmer; his simple frames, flummoxed men, willful women and Paris backgrounds are such Rohmer tropes. The familiarity of Hong’s form renders his content even more charming and recognizable. Like Rohmer’s, Hong’s films are perfect little jewel boxes of adult idiosyncrasies, vanities and follies. When Hong breaks his realist mode for an unannounced dream sequence, the power of his natural style is fully revealed.

Tokyo Sonata Dir: Kiyoshi Kurosawa

After the slowly building supernatural worlds of Cure and Pulse, Kurosawa turns to the shomen geki of everyday Tokyo, with its redundant and abandoned salarymen, dutiful trapped wives and children whose parents know nothing about them. Working in the tradition of Ozu and Naruse, Kurosawa upends their every signifier, and offers a world so rich in alienation that silence becomes the primary form of communication. Where the supper tables of Ozu and Naruse were the one place their characters communed, Kurosawa modern family slurps together without a word, each standing when finished and gratefully returning to the universe inside their heads. There are moments of heartbreaking naturalist beauty (a Kurosawa specialty) and grotesque family violence, but this time, for the first time ever, Kurosawa’s loses his impeccable sense of pacing. The film has three endings and the first self-consciously arty shots in any of his pictures. Much is redeemed in the poetic, six-minute, one-shot finale. If Kurosawa had cut the fifteen that preceded it, the film would be perfect.

Gomorra Dir: Matteo Garrone

I don’t know how director Garrone found the precise film stock used for most Blaxsploitation or even if he did it on purpose. But the ugliness of his images, the luridness of his colors and the harsh, grating soundtrack provides the perfect visual counterpoint to his mind-blowing, underexplained, hyperrealist account of the Naples’ Mafia. As Garrone demonstrates in scene after bloody scene, the Neapolitans do not play. (The author of the book on which the film is based was so terrorized he gave up his 24 hour police protection and fled Italy altogether). Nobody lives very long in this film; its episodic nature and crude structure give it a vitality that no American crime movie has come near in years. It’s quite confusing—several of the characters look alike, it’s impossible to tell who’s allied with whom and Garrone offers few reasons for the all-lethal feuds. In this corrupt, hopeless world, the closest he comes to heroes are two moronic teenagers with far more balls than brains. In The Godfather and even Goodfellas (pictures to which Gomorrawill be inaccurately compared ad nauseum) death was a big deal, the ultimate, mostly avoided solution to an unsolvable problem. Here it’s the first and last option.

 Waltz With Bashir Dir: Ari Folman

A singular, shocking animated documentary that makes no bones about conflating the personal/psychological with the political. Folman narrates his evolving acceptance of his suppressed memories of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon via discussing that campaign with his friends who were there. Foremost in his memories, but never revealed until the climax are his—and the entire Israeli army’s—passive complicity in the Christian Phalangist’s massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps outside Beirut. Folman does the film harm by opening with an extended sequence that showcases the limitations of his chosen form of animation. But after that initial alienation, the story—told in the words of his combat patrol buddies and lifelong friends—dominates the technology. Folman presents his guilt and confusion as his apology, and he is as unapologetic about the glamour and terror of war as was Michael Herr when he wrote Dispatches. Like Dispatches, Folman uses colloquial language to frame an atrocity, and makes war universal by never stepping outside the deeply subjective experience of his interviewees. Folman’s compassion for his buddies, his nation and its victims is manifest, along with his bafflement that any of his decent cadre could have been involved in such a thing. A great film.

 A Christmas Tale Dir: Arnaud Desplechin

For some, a garbled, lighthearted, semi-surreal romp through the rotting French upper-classes and all their little schemes and insanities, with a blank-faced Catherine Denueve cast to anchor the film in the tradition of the better movies it aspires to emulate. For others with less patience, an insufferable wank.

Changeling Dir: Clint Eastwood

The Festival’s bigger than what it presents, and only cheapens itself when it panders. While Changeling is nowhere near the nightmare of that Ralph Fienes disaster Strange Days, you gotta wonder who the Festival thought would be served by scheduling such a mediocre exercise in Oscar-bait. Granted, the lure of filling every one of the Zeigfeld’s however-many thousand seats must have been irresistible, and the director’s press conference was equally SRO. As for the film itself, I yield to the prescient words of Rail film critic Sarahjane Blum, who said of Eastwood’s Mystic River: “That’s way too much acting for any one movie.” To which I can only add: and ditto on the lipstick.

Che Dir: Steven Soderberg

See Che run; See Che shoot; See Che die

At 262 minutes, longer than Andre RublevHeaven’s GateLa Maman et La PutainLawrence of Arabiaand, inconceivably, last year’s Festival’s champion ass-deadener, the Peter Bogdonavich-directed Tom Petty documentary Running Down a Dream. Unlike Che, however, whenDream ended and feeling returned to the nether regions, I thought I’d gained some sense of its hero as a mythic figure and a man. The dominant impression of Che remains: how did Benecio del Toro get his beard to be so perfectly scraggly? Soderberg shot on a new, rare and astonishingly film-like digital camera. The light weight, low cost and easy portability apparently freed him from worrying about whether every idea that could be filmed should be. The first half—which presents in excruciating detail the Cuban revolution and its armed struggle—features a few killer action sequences (Soderberg channels Lawrence as a locomotive gets blown right off its tracks) and lots of strutting and posturing in green fatigues. Del Toro never gifts Che with much interior life; his character communicates in weighty silences, Zen pronouncements and revolutionary declamations. All three seem pretty rote by the third hour. The final two hours + follows Che’s confused, futile and really depressing attempt to galvanize a Bolivian populace unable to care less aboutliberacion. Betrayed by the local peasantry, abandoned by the Bolivian Communist Party, hunted like a dog by the army, Che, you know, dies. End of story. Two enormous components are missing, and their absence informs every moment. Soderberg presents Che as a man of action, and action is what we experience. But he never addresses what might have gone on between Castro and Che when the shooting stopped. Nor does he show what Che—who seems to believe in revolutionary liberation—thought of the Stalinist Cuba his revolution delivered. Soderberg offers a Che with no context, no sense of responsibility for his actions and no doubts. By the end of the film, Che is an action figure, running through an anachronistic world that Soderbeg cannot present in any way that resonates.

Michelle Williams as Wendy.

 

Wendy and Lucy Dir: Kelly Reichardt

"Good times are comin,’" Neil Young once sang, "but they’re sure coming slow." Here Reichardt dissects the all-at-once arrival of the worst possible times, chapter and verse. Her heroine, Wendy, lives with her dog Lucy on the working class’ razor’s edge, one tiny mishap from problems that cannot be solved. It’s a straightforward, unadorned portrayal, almost too spare, almost willfully ugly, but you could rightfully call it Americana. Reichardt’s quiet rigor fuels a credible, moving tragedy that features a burning, self-contained performance from Michelle Williams. Singer/songwriter Will Oldham perfectly cameos as the one guy you would never want to hop a freight beside.

Thursday
Jan012009

GENRE TRIUMPHANT: THE 11 BEST FILMS OF 2008

The best films this year were genre pictures: vampire, policier, art film, gangster, war movie…all using genre conventions to keep us anchored as they shattered every genre convention we know. The sensation of being on familiar ground and utterly unmoored made the usual fare seem even more schematic, yesterday’s news. Especially yesterday’s news was, for instance, the supposed cautionary tale ofWall-E; its metaphors of overconsumption proved unintentionally amusing in the face of the new economic reality. By the time Wall-E’s future arrives, we’ll all be fighting him on the slag heaps for those scraps of resonant refuse—Rubik’s Cubes, hubcaps, any sign of green life…

So many films this year seem equally time-warped, as if they didn’t realize their narrative methods just weren’t that effective. But the best of 2008 found ground-breaking story-telling modes (some are forty years old) and ways of conveying drama that rely on our inescapable visual sophistication. The best this year made nothing explicit and the implicit—wherein the emotional, thematic, and even dramatic material was held—was almost too much to bear. There was little arty self-consciousness in the Tarantino, Baumbach or Anderson mode. Why? Because there are only three American films on the list, and it’s only Americans who feel compelled to be self-conscious when they’re artful.

 

1) Let The Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in)

Love hurts. Love scars. It wounds and mars. Love will also get your arms torn right out of your shoulders if you fuck with someone a vampire loves. And loving a vampire might force you to spend the rest of your mortal days hanging innocents upside down from trees so you can drain their blood. The passive, aging Swedish hippies huddled in their Danish Modern state housing provide the perfect 21st-century equivalent to the terrified villagers who refuse to open their shutters when Count Dracula’s about, no matter how blood-curdling the screams. Despite the astonishingly original treatment of an old story, what lingers are the rigorous, gorgeous visuals, the twining of love and doom, the rescues that ensure only more brutality, the mysteriously disquieting presentation of what comprises gender, and an even more disquieting notion of soulmates.

     "No more sheep head!?!" © Blueeyes Productions.

2) Jar City (Mýrin)

2) Jar City

Contemporary artist Luke Murphy created a big pop-art graph that traces the relationship between Depression and Hidden Information. Director Baltasar Kormákur provides the real-life dynamic: an Iceland of the repressed, where seldom is heard an encouraging word and the skies are apparently cloudy all year. Toughness is admired (vegetarians get a hard time), toughness destroys (our protagonist cop’s junkie daughter comes to him only for money). The cop seeks not justice, really, or truth, but a moral cause, some proof that his corruption within is not wholly mirrored by corruption without. In that quest, as in all others, he will be disappointed. Jar City understands that the only the tiniest triumphs endure.

 

3) Help Me Eros (Bang bang wo ai shen)

A masterpiece of mise-en-scène and deploying color to convey emotion. At once lucid, apparent, and cloaked in mystery, joyous, transcendent, and heartbreaking. Taiwan’s loneliest man befriends a cigarette girl in a chaos dreamscape of urban pastels. He grows the best bud in town, and sells his priceless modern furniture in crap pawn shops to buy bread. He incarnates the artist’s dilemma manifest in the universe of the post-collapse of global markets. Deadpan Kang-sheng Lee directs and stars in a slow-moving poem of disconnection, alienation, and sex that achieves transcendence through a seemingly new cinematic language.

 

"When do we get our heads blown off?" © IFC Films.

4) Gomorrah (Gomorra)

Naples is one tough town. The mob stacks barrel upon barrel of industrial waste just down the street, murders moms who won’t give up their apartments, and functions with a mind-set that ensures its members and business partners the life expectancy of East Texas bikers, if that. Matteo Garrone, a thoughtful intellectual, chose a visual style that’s equal parts documentary and The Valachi Papers—half deadpan gaze, half lurid exploitation. As with all this year’s best, he explains nothing. We are hurled into the story as the locals are hurled into this milieu, and sink or swim with them. It’s strenuous, captivating, and it raises the bar for every gangster movie to come.

 

5) Waltz With Bashir

Guilt, confusion, the fog of war, political purpose, reluctance to bad-mouth one’s homeland, the determination to dehumanize one’s enemies, and an in-the-bone aversion to taking responsibility for atrocities committed on the periphery of one’s actions: these are the ingredients of national denial, as every American knows all too well. It took Ari Folman twenty years to come to grips with the terrors he lived through, the terrors he unknowingly enabled, and the terrors of slowly remembering who he was and what he did. He turned to animation in pursuit of realism, a genius move, and as counterintuitive as his methods of recovery, moral accusation and the refusal to forgive himself or his nation.

  "Why aren't we on DVD yet?" ©Image Entertainment

6)Human Condition (Ningen no joken 1959—’61)

Give it up for the Film Forum: 10 hours of Japanese Tolstoyan, Dostoevskian hopelessness, the unblinking depiction of Japan selling its soul, citizen by citizen, while building to the war; of the dying during the war and the crushing poverty of the land after. Never seen (never on video) and, once seen, never forgotten, not as story nor as one of the more significant visual influences on a number of masters—Bergman, Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa among them. Let’s hope that one day soon Criterion will give this film the treatment it deserves.

 

Lonely are the bullied; Let The Right One In © EFTI.

 

 

7) Celine And Julie Go Boating (Céline et Julie vont en bateau—1974)

Give it up for BAM: 193 minutes of Jacques Rivette fucking around as only he could. Light-hearted Rivette proved a rare and lovely thing, and as I wondered when is he going to stop fucking around, he did. The contrast between the cat’s-paw decadence of the first 192 minutes and the door-slamming, party’s-over-oops-out-of-time of the final 60 seconds sear the film in memory. Like Human Condition, it’s set in a quite specific time and place that remains universal and constantly true.

  Three men who have not yet heard the terrible news. ©Blueprint Pictures.

8) In Bruges

Playwright, screenwriter, and director Martin McDonagh’s entire oeuvreseeks to prove the truth of Bertolt Brecht’s immortal line: “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible news.” The poles of laughs versus terrible news form the yin and yang of McDonaghville, and the urge to escape remains as potent as the need to keep watching through fingers clamped over my eyes. He generates restlessness, and concern over whether to laugh. He makes us ask: is that too much? Has he gone too far? Has he responsibly connected all this gore and pain to something more? And the answer is: nope, and he ain’t gonna. Like Beckett, McDonagh omits what he regards as unnecessary. And like Beckett, that would be everything save ghastly humor and death. Those omissions resonate through his work and may grant a witty gangster farce more profundity than it warrants, but there’s no denying the laughs or the terrible news.

 

9) Shotgun Stories

As evidenced by …Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and Revolutionary Road, Michael Shannon might be the best, not-so-unknown-anymore actor in America. He carries Shotgun Stories, the least embellished, most compassionate and accurate cultural and moral depiction of southern rednecks ever made. This is no small feat. Set in a succession of endless 1980s days in rural po’bucker nowhere, Jeff Nichols’s low-budget Neorealist approach captures the vanity, obsession, small-mindedness, and earned occasional nobility of white, hardscrabble, dead-end American life. As ever, violence and revenge offer the only possible transcendence.

 "I'm going to blast my fuckin' legacy right outta the water!"© WarnerBros.

10) Gran Torino

In the best Charles Bronson movie Charles Bronson never made, Clint proves more patient and more sentimental than Charles ever was. Having begun the cycle of revisionist Westerns by being (in Clint’s words) “the first hero to ever fire first,” Clint here repudiates forty-four years of on-screen bloodletting by refusing to fire at all. For both character and director the finale demonstrates true moral courage. Clint’s unregenerate misanthropy and his genuine wit—a late-career development—more than compensate for clanking exposition and underwritten characters. Much is lost by Clint’s insistence on singing over the closing credits, but it’s his epitaph, so what can you do?

 

11) Valkyrie

Every year the chickenshit sheep of American movie critics and irony outlets gang up on one picture before it comes out, label it ridiculous, and smirk as it fails. This year, they tried to lay that shit on Valkyrie, but audiences found it anyway. Cruise’s big vehicle is not his vehicle at all, but instead a perfectly solid, well-executed, dumb World War II movie, and I love dumb WWII movies. Is Cruise playing a good Nazi any more absurd or morally bereft than Michael Caine or Robert Duvall playing theirs (The Eagle Has Landed)? Director Singer assembled a Who’s Who of dignified British thesps—Kenneth Branagh, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Terrence Stamp for god’s sake!—to embody the Third Reich as he sought to make a John Sturges picture and he came damn close. It’s our era’s Where Eagles Dare, and there is no higher praise.

And, not while sitting in the theatre during Rachel Getting Married, but afterward and since, Jonathan Demme’s Gus Van Zant Lite sent my bullshit detector off the charts. I expect in a couple years we’re all going to be awfully embarrassed at being taken in. Ditto for Wendy and Lucy.